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Start-up space mission comes to New York: New York NOW

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The aerospace industry is commonly associated with Florida or Texas, but New York’s own technology sector has been playing a major role in our ability to see and understand the cosmos.

As federal spending on projects for NASA flat lined, former NASA employee Jon Morse started BoldlyGo, a private company that hopes to help breathe new life into missions in space.

“Astro-1 is a space telescope that is meant for the era beyond the Hubble telescope. Hubble has a finite lifetime, towards the end of this decade or so before its capabilities will be severely degraded.”

Yes that’s right, the world famous Hubble Space Telescope will likely be retired sometime around 2020 leaving a ‘hole’ - so to speak - in our intergalactic field of view. Morse says he’s hoping to build a new telescope that can continue to capture the spectrum of light that Hubble did.  

“Right now in NASA’s missions that they’re planning, there’s no capability for ultraviolet spectroscopy, which is one of the main stays of space astronomy.”

This new telescope, tentatively titled Astro-1, will be a lighter smaller version of its cousin of the Hubble. Like its predecessor, Astro-1 will capture ultra-violet light images but will have a 10 times larger field of view thanks to updated technology from the same company that helped build Hubble.

Rendering or the Astro-1 space telescope
Credit Credit BoldlyGo / Innovation Trail

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New York’s own Corning Incorporated recently made a major donation to BoldlyGo, to create a new space telescope mirror, similar to the mirror blank they created for the famous Hubble telescope in 1978.

Corning’s Product Line Manager for Advanced Products at Canton, Larry Sutton explains what a mirror blank is.

“So if you can envision a honeycomb, it’s mostly air but it’s very strong still, so that’s essentially what we’re making is a honeycomb structure out of low expansion material which is our ULE (Ultra-Low Expansion Glass) to make the primary mirror and it will be very rigid and allow the telescope to focus very precisely.”

Nestled in the northern town of Canton, just outside of the Adirondack state park is one of Corning Glasses’ high tech facilities. The first set of glass mirrors Corning built for the Hubble telescope were light weighted by 60%; meaning they were able to reduce the weight of the glass structure by 60%. With today’s technology, Sutton says they can product the same piece that’s light weighted by 90% while still maintaining the same structural integrity.

“When the temperature changes essentially the mirror structure does not change. It stays very constant which again allows you to focus very precisely over a large temperature gradient.”

This may seem like a minor detail but it’s crucial for space telescopes. Outside of the earth’s atmosphere, temperatures can swing 300 degrees in a matter of seconds and telescope glass simply cannot afford to crack.

Once the Corning glass components are finished in Canton, they’ll be sent here to Exelis in Rochester, where they’ll be polished and finished and fitted for the Astro-1 telescope.

Exelis Program Manager for Astronomy System Study Programs, Laura Abplanalp, says the company specializes in space telescopes.

“We can produce very clear images from space, as a matter of fact we’ve produced 99% of all the optics that take pictures from space. Both looking at the earth and looking out into space.”

Exelis has 50 years of experience building space telescopes. Once they receive the light weighted glass components from Canton, it will be coated with a light reflective material like aluminum and mounted in the middle the telescope as its primary mirror. Exelis will then produce a secondary mirror that will sit behind the primary and transfer collected light to an instrument screen. Abplanalp says the mirrors will be held in place with a high stability composite keeping the entire structure as light as possible.

“The benefit for that is that the space craft can then put that lower mass, that lower weight farther into space and it also allows the mission to last longer because not as much fuel is required to maneuver it once it’s in place.”

Once completed, Astro-1 would be sent a million miles into space to collect images like dark matter. The ultra violet light it collects will help to determine how fast an object is moving, what it’s made of, and determine its temperature and density. BoldlyGo’s Jon Morse says Astro-1 could help further innovation and discoveries.

“We will also be able to investigate exoplanets around nearby stars. Our off access design is what people have been talking about for at least 15 years about what is needed to make really clean stellar images.”

Morse says Astro-1 will help the astronomical community take on space frontier projects with private funding. The Astro-1 Telescope wouldn’t take the place but simply build on the legacy of Hubble.

Despite Corning’s 1-point-8 million dollar glass donation and private fundraising, the telescope project isn’t anywhere near completion. Morse says the entire Astro-1 project will likely cost half a billion dollars and won’t get off the ground until 2025 at the earliest.

From Rochester, I’m Jenna Flanagan for New York NOW.

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